Before You Make Major Life and Relationship Decisions During Stressful Times/Covid, Read This

red Wrong Way signage on road

It’s remarkable that virtually every person on the planet is dealing with the confusion, depression and fears resulting from the Covid-19 pandemic. Every person…that’s probably unprecedented in history.

Media reports research that states that divorces are up, and more and more people are seeking out mental health professionals for help.

It’s a tough time.

Life Continues, Decisions Still Required

Covid has caused a major sense of uncertainty, of not knowing what is going to happen next. We are experiencing a sense of loss of control over our lives.

Yet decisions need to be made. And they are being made but are they GOOD decisions?

What we know about decision making is that the higher the degree of threat felt, the more extensive the sense of anxiety, the worse decisions get. That’s ironic because it’s during such times that we feel that we “have to do something”, to reduce the feelings of anxiety.

So, decisions made under duress are quite likely to be wrong, particularly in retrospect.

Little Decisions, Big Decisions

We make little decisions almost every minute of our waking days — what to eat, who to talk to, what book to read…the list is almost infinite, and these little decisions are less likely to be clouded by the “larger” sense of anxiety. It makes sense to treat these decisions exactly as we always have. Make the decision, and move on.

Big decisions are different. By definition, they are major decisions that have the capability of changing and affecting your life, or the lives of others in significant ways.

Examples of Major Decisions

  • divorce and marriage
  • ending a relationship
  • quitting a job
  • taking on a new job
  • major geographical relocation
  • major purchases (eg. house, car)

It may be wise to delay these kinds of decisions if that’s possible (and sometimes you just can’t delay).

The Psychology Behind Waiting

When under stress, we tend to hyper focus on the stressors. In the case of Covid, consider how much of your day is focused on Covid, how to manage during these times, where money is coming from, and so on. That means that our cognitive resources (which are somewhat limited) are taken up.

What’s more important is that the effects of ongoing stress on our ability to THINK well. As our general level of arousal (a function of anxiety levels), rise, our ability to think through detailed, and complex problems deteriorates badly. It becomes hard to concentrate, and think through things properly.

In addition to decreased cognitive functioning, we have the question of mood. You’ll probably agree that after so many months of covid, your mood is more negative than before. You may even be caught in a depression. What’s more; people tend to slide slowly into depression and so can be unaware that their mood has shifted.

Making decisions while depressed is dangerous because things will often seem futile and pointless. Worse, you may not even know that you are caught in a down spiral of depression, day by day.

A Case Example: Should I Stay Or Should I GoLet’s consider Jan. She has been in a living together relationship with Tom. Over the previous years, the relationship has hit some snags (as do most relationships). Jan and Tom have managed to get over those snags with a minimum of grief. They worked things out.

But now, Covid has resulted in both of them being layed off from their jobs, so they are together in their home almost all the time. They worry about money. They worry about their futures. They are scared, and anxious, and as couples are wont to do, they start blaming each other for their situations. Their relationship is unraveling, and Jan is not happy.

In “normal” times Jan would be confident they could work out their differences. In covid times, they are at the same time as being stressed, emotionally exhausted. But now Jan is considering that she might want to get out of the relationship due to their difficulty in getting along over the last eight months.

But here’s the important question:

Are the difficulties Jan and Tom are experiencing an indicator of fundamental flaws in their relationship that cannot be fixed, or are they a result of the external factors and variables that are beyond their control (isolation, covid worries, money concerns, that are transitory, etc)?

Consider that Jan is depressed, completely stressed out, and emotionally exhausted. This means that her assessment of her situation is going to be much darker that before Covid. She feels everything is futile and tends to blame Tom.

But Tom really isn’t at fault here, and it may be that if they hang in there and work their COMMITMENT to each other, they can end up with a quite satisfying and long term relationship.

Jan decides to end the relationship, which also means finding new living quarters (yet another stress). In essence she decides it’s all pointless with Tom.

Things don’t get better for either person. The changes have only added an additional heavy burden of stress and anxiety, and after the separation, neither is happy. We don’t know what will happen — perhaps they’ll get back together. Perhaps not.

One thing is sure. Jan made a decision at one of the worst possible points in her life. She made a decision which likely has permanent life long consequences when she was ill equipped to make those kinds of decisions.

If Jan had recognized her ability to make important was impaired she might have delayed her decision, or failing that, decided that some sort of half measure, less permanent, would work. She could ask to go to counselling. Or maybe a short vacation away from each other. Or something that might help gain perspective and insight into their problems as coming from outside circumstances.

Some Takeaways To Consider

  1. Making life changing decisions during times of great stress (or other life events) is a bad idea. Family deaths, marriages, relocation, or anything else that causes stress will impact on our decision making abilities.
  2. Some situations are urgent, where decisions can not be delayed. For example, if Tom was abusive to Jan, then the need to make an immediate decision is urgent.
  3. While distress and anxiety can motivate you to move from the status quo to a new arrangement, you may feel unnecessary pressure from that motivation, while at the same time, suffering from mood issues or temporary cognitive impairment.
  4. Some times a decision MUST be made. Other times it seems like a decision must be made, but that a false sense, particularly if the root problems are outside of the control of those in the relationship.
  5. When confronted with the desire to make a life changing decision, use your personal supports to bounce off ideas with someone who will NOT automatically take your side. The best confidants — in fact those worth their weight in gold — are people who will help you work through the consequences of the decision and examine alternatives you might not have considered.
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